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What Exactly Is Beer?

And why has it become such a popular drink?

What Exactly Is Beer?

You all love beer. That’s not a question. But have you ever stopped and thought about what beer actually is? At its most basic level, its fermented grains. But how on earth did that become a popular drink? When you think about it, it’s rather strange after all!

I mean, think about it. If you have these little kernels of grass seeds that taste pretty good, what would be your first thought to do with them? I doubt many of you said, “put ‘em in water and let them sit there for a couple of days and then drink it!”

And then to say that that weird grain juice you just made would become popular? That’s like someone predicting that Bitcoin would boom and grow from being worth less than pennies to tens of thousands of dollars. It just doesn’t seem reasonable at first…

As it turns out, to begin the story of beer, we have to go a long, long way back. I am not talking a couple of centuries back, and I’m not talking even 2000 years back. We are going to have to go all the way back 7 thousand years ago to the dawn of human civilization.

In the Beginning…

The oldest evidence we have of people producing beer, as in an alcoholic beverage made from fermented cereal grains, is ancient clay jars that date back to about 7 thousand years into the past.

Scientists did some analysis on clay jars from an area in what is now modern day Iran and found evidence of beer! The insides of the ancient jars had chemical residue showing that beer had been stored in the jars at one point.

Jumping a little further into the future, the ancient non beer evidence we have of beer existing is an ancient Mesopotamian clay tablet. The clay tablet seems to depict people sitting around drinking beer from a communal bowl through reed straws.

Jump a little further into the future at about 3900 years ago, and we have the most ancient beer recipe we have found so far. It is a poem honoring Nunkatsi, an ancient Sumerian goddess of brewing. The poem happens to contain a beer recipe talking about beer made from bread.

There are other finds across the globe that show evidence of the brewing of beer, and it is believed that it is entirely possible that beer brewing developed separately around the globe for many different peoples.

Even in Europe, we have evidence that seems to indicate beer was brewed at least on a domestic scale going back 5 thousand years ago. And China is a similar story. Residue in bots showing beer was brewed dating back 5 thousand years.

But why? Why was beer such a popular drink, and how come so many different cultures ended up all developing beer? Furthermore, why has beer stayed so popular after literally thousands of years?

Healthy, Safe, Delicious

Beer is a safe liquid to drink. Because of its alcohol content, the harmful bacteria found in the water are killed off. This means drinking “ale” or beer could have been a safer drink than drinking straight water.

Now, of course, people drank water. It is a myth that ancient people just drank ale all the time. If they did, they would have all gotten drunk and probably died of alcohol poisoning. I mean, could you imagine having to drink 2 - 4 liters of ale a day?

However, to ignore the fact that an alcoholic drink would be safer than a non alcoholic drink in terms of bacterial contamination is also a bit naive. There is even evidence that shows ancient people used beer as a disinfectant for wounds.

But, people could also just boil water to clean it, which is something people knew about as well. However, in some cases when there was very contaminated water, people would drink ale or beer as a safe alternative.

However, I don’t think that is the reason why it is such a popular drink. Beer is so popular, and has stayed so popular because it tastes good! People love the stuff! It’s malty, it’s flavorful, and it has a complex taste that nothing else is quite like it.

It’s like if you had bread in a liquid form. People love bread! Bread is one of the biggest staple foods across the entire planet! You would probably have to go really deep into the rainforest or something to find people who don’t have their own forms of bread.

The same goes for beer. People love beer, and that is not something specific to one culture. All around the globe people love beer, and it has been and remained a humongously popular drink worldwide.

Heck, beer is such a popular drink that the ancient Hebrew word in the Bible for “being drunk” derives from the ancient Hebrew word for beer. I think it is quite clear just how unanimous the enjoyment of beer was across the world.

What Actually Is Beer?

Now that we have explained the history of beer, what exactly is beer? We know its a fermented drink made from grains, but is that it?

Well, the simple answer is yes. Beer is a very simple drink (in its most basic form). It’s just cereal grains that have fermented in the natural yeasts found on the grain kernels.

We also add in what is called “hops” to beer which is a kind of flower that gives the beer more flavor. If you ever tried just straight fermented grains, you would probably think they were missing something, or the flavor wasn’t just right.

But other than that and water, that’s it! Sugar isn’t even added, as there is plenty to be found in the grains themselves! The Fermentation just breaks down the starches into sugars and presto! Natural sweetening.

Of course, this is a huge oversimplification, and the beer making process is much more complex than that in practice, but at its core, it’s a simple idea. How beer is made has more nuance, but all of that is just really additions that sharpen the main idea.